Brought to you by Discover Siskiyou
It’s fall in Northern California, which means the salmon who were once hatched in the local tributaries are now returning to spawn. These fish have spent the past years growing big out in the Pacific Ocean and from October to December, they make an exhausting journey back to their birthplace.
One of the best places in California to experience this marvel in science and nature is on the Klamath River. In Hornbrook, California sits the Iron Gate Hatchery, the birthplace for many of the Klamath river salmon runs. At the facility, visitors can watch the salmon as they return to their homes or watch the hatchery crew work on their exhaustive spawning operation.
The Klamath River begins just on the other side of the Oregon border, in Klamath Falls, and flows 257 miles into NorCal, through Siskiyou County and out into the Pacific Ocean. There are plenty of places to fish for salmon on the Klamath, including the Copco Lakes and Iron Gate Reservoir (just above the hatchery), but the best place to view the runs is at the hatchery.
Iron Gate spawns both Chinook Salmon and Coho Salmon from the Klamath River this time of year. For Chinook, the hatchery staff manually collect the eggs and mix it with the milt immediately after the fish come into the facility. CDFW environmental scientists also collect heads from adipose fin clipped salmon, in order to retrieve implanted tags in the snout. The retrieved tags tell the biologists which hatchery the fish is from, and when it was released. They also collect scales, which enable them to determine the age of the fish.
Salmon possess the extraordinary ability to sense their native rivers from more than a thousand miles away in the open ocean. When it is time to spawn, they need no directions. Humans have tried and failed to understand this without success, and even the best GPS units cannot compare with a steelhead’s innate ability to find home. Every salmon knows where home is.
That’s why California Department of Fish and Wildlife workers know exactly when the salmon will flock to the area of the Klamath River to spawn and they use the opportunity to hatch thousands of baby salmon at the facility. The hatchery could see 9,000 to 14,000 salmon at the facility in a year and extract 9 million eggs. Once the salmon are hatched, they will be released into the river to make the trek to the Pacific Ocean, only to return to the same facility they were born years later… and MUCH bigger.
The Iron Gate Hatchery is open daily from 7 am to 3:30 pm, where people can watch the salmon enter the facility and watch workers process the salmon for spawning. There is also an information kiosk where visitors can learn about the science behind the salmon runs and how the hatchery helps the salmon populations on the Klamath River.